[Image via linkis]

Josh Douglas of the University of Kentucky had a very interesting blog post last week on the future of lowering the voting age – take a look:

There is a great storyline in an episode of the The West Wing where Cody, a teenaged boy, convinces White House Communications Director Toby Ziegler that children should be allowed to vote.  As Toby says, “I’d go for lowering the age in increments, and I wouldn’t start at the federal level.”  

Toby is right.  I have been thinking about this scene a lot during my initial research for a new project, tentatively titled “The Right to Vote Under Local Law,” which will look at municipal laws around the country that grant the franchise to various constituencies.  This debate was re-ignited, including on the election law list serv, in the past day after Professor Glenn Reynolds (of Instapundit fame) published an Op-Ed suggesting that the voting age should be increased to 25.  

Below, I explain my initial thinking on this project.  Here is the punchline: local jurisdictions should enact franchise-expanding ordinances, including lowering the voting age. [emphasis added]

Two Maryland cities, Takoma Park and Hyattsville, have recently granted the right to vote to 16- and 17-year-olds in city elections.  Initial reports from Takoma Park suggest that it worked quite well, with turnout among young people increasing significantly.  Moreover, these voters tended to educate themselves about the issues and candidates before heading to the polls, taking away the argument that young voters are not mature or educated enough to select their leaders.  Several larger jurisdictions, such as San Francisco and Washington, D.C., are debating similar proposals.  The idea in D.C. is to allow 16-year-olds to vote in presidential elections.  Some cities in Massachusetts have explored lowering the voting age, but they must secure state legislative approval under Massachusetts law.  Moreover, the voting age in about half of the states is 17 for presidential primaries if the voter will be 18 by the time of the general election.  Sixteen and 17-year-olds were also allowed to vote in the recent election over Scottish independence.

There are plenty of good reasons to extend voting to 16- and 17-year olds, as recounted in this FairVote overview.  Among other arguments, it is only fair to allow 16- and 17-year olds to vote given that they can obtain a driver’s license and must pay taxes on their wages.  Moreover, turnout among young people is abysmally low, and it is best to create a habit of voting as early as possible (once our society believes that individuals are able to take on these societal responsibilities).

In addition to lowering the voting age, several local jurisdictions have extended voting rights in local elections to non-citizens, and New York City is still debating the idea.  There is also the possibility of restoring voting rights for felons in local elections or adopting other reforms at the local level to improve elections.

The power of using local law to reform our democratic processes is that it can have a positive ripple effect throughout the country.  Indeed, the history of expanding the franchise has often come through local reforms.  As just one example, the women’s suffrage movement had some early successes in achieving the right to vote in municipal and school board elections in places like East Cleveland and some cities in Kansas before the adoption of the 19th Amendment.  Similarly, property qualifications for voting were dismantled first at the local level.

Therefore, although a federal constitutional amendment granting the right to vote might be beneficial, and although state courts should construe their state constitutional provisions conferring voting rights more robustly, it might make sense to “go small” if we want to secure broader protection for the right to vote.  

I’ll have more to say on this project as the research progresses, and I should note that my current thinking is very preliminary.  Nevertheless, I welcome comments both on the general idea and the initial thesis: localism is perhaps the best path for broader change on voting rights, given that historically, expansion of the right to vote has come through piecemeal, local rules.  Therefore, municipalities should enact local laws expanding the franchise, which will have a significant effect in the long run in both securing voting rights for more people and making our democracy stronger nationwide.

Josh’s views on localism are consistent with the idea of states (and localities) as “laboratories of democracy” and jibe with my experience that the successful adoption of most election changes tends to follow an “innovate then propagate” pattern across the country. The idea that lowering the voting age could follow the same path is intriguing, but if it does it will likely take a while given lingering concerns about the effect of adding even younger voters to the electorate. Still, Josh’s effort to place the issue in a larger “trajectory to reform” narrative is a fascinating take.

I’ll be interested to see if this idea picks up steam – but for now, it’s a fun idea that helps us rethink our current approach to elections and election administration reform.

Stay tuned …